Is LiFi set to revolutionize inflight connectivity?

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WiFi has been the go-to technology for IFEC forever. But, things change, and Air France along with the Latécoère Group are looking for a new solution. Their light-based connectivity system, or LiFi, will debut in the skies in September this year. We take a look at what LiFi is, and whether it will really be a revolution for aviation connectivity.

Air France
Air France will take to the skies with the first LiFi system in September. Photo: Air France

What is LiFi?

LiFi is the abbreviation of light fidelity, and WiFi is wireless fidelity. Whereas WiFi makes use of electromagnetic waves for data transmission, LiFi uses light. Essentially, it uses LED lightbulbs to transmit data, which means it is highly secure as the signal cannot pass through walls. Being free from radiofrequency waves also means there is less chance of it interfering with other equipment, and of it being interfered with.

However, for all the positive aspects of this technology, there are some downsides to LiFi too. While it is better for more densely packed areas of users, the coverage is only about 10 meters. WiFi, on the other hand, works to around 32 meters, although this varies depending on the transmitter power and antenna type.

In terms of speeds, a system developed by Oledcomm called LiFiMAX has been tested to broadcast data at up to 100Mbps. In the future, developers say it would be capable of up to 1GB per second.  Gigabit-capable connections in the sky would be a dream for passengers on board, but how close to that reality are we?

Latécoère Group and Air France

At the International Paris Air Show earlier this year, a partnership between Air France, Latécoère Group and Ubisoft trailed LiFi to run an inflight video game tournament on a mock aircraft cabin. By all accounts the demonstration went very well, with subsequent rounds taking place on the ground, using the same technology.

Air France A321
LiFi will debut on an Air France A321 this September. Photo: Wikimedia

The final elimination rounds are, most excitingly, set to take place on board an actual Air France flight this coming September. The flight will take place on an Airbus A321 equipped with an iteration of the Oledcomm LiFi system and hardware from Latécoère Group. It’s not clear how quickly Air France and their partner airline KLM are looking at rolling out such technology, but it’s an exciting step in the right direction.

How does it work?

According to Apex Aero, the system works via the existing reading light installed over passenger seats. It uses fiberoptic cables to connect to the antenna, which are much lighter and less bulky than the traditional copper cabling used for WiFi. A plastic shell containing the LiFi modem is fixed to the existing headrest, using the already provided in-seat power for juice.

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The system on board an aircraft. Image: Oledcomm

A user-facing tablet is attached to the shell, which can be used like a seatback screen. Passengers will also be able to connect their personal devices via Bluetooth or with a cable. At the moment, there is no way to stream the data directly to the devices, as LiFi requires a direct line of sight between the sender and the receiver; a fixed unit is required.

Is this the future of IFEC?

While any big change in how we do things is always perceived with a little trepidation, Latécoère is confident that it’s on the cusp of a revolution. Speaking to Runway Girl Network, Serge Berenger, Latécoère’s vice president for research and technology, commented,

“What we are developing is the infrastructure for data communication in the cabin. It’s a combination of a backbone made of fibre optics and the last metre of communication, which is the lifi technology. Everything we’ve developed is based on this backbone approach. It’s going to first of all dramatically change and improve the bandwidth of communication in the cabin. That’s going to change the life of the passenger. They will have a very high bandwidth internal to the cabin that will allow them to benefit from new services that will come over time.”

Lifi airbus
Infographic on how LiFi works. Image: Airbus

The system, in theory, will support data transmission of up to 100Mbps. However, achieving such speeds is wholly reliant on being able to acquire high-speed connections from satellites, something which could come with 5G but isn’t ready just yet.

In the skies, many of the limitations of LiFi are negligible, such as the short transmission range, because passengers, for the most part, are seated in one position. However, the directionality of the system could prove to be its downfall. With increasing numbers of carriers showing a preference for a BYOD strategy for IFEC, LiFi could end up being unsuitable for airlines unwilling to invest in seatback screens.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Air France move forward with their LiFi testing, and how it’s received by passengers once it begins to roll out.

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